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Amazon's Echo Show makes Alexa more accessible to the deaf and speech-impaired

Live today, Amazon's new "Tap to Alexa" feature lets hearing- and speech-impaired users trigger common Alexa tricks with a few taps on the screen, no conversation needed.

Amazon

Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo have brought voice controls into millions of homes -- but what if you can't hear what Alexa has to say? What if it's difficult or impossible for you to talk to her in the first place?

Starting today, Amazon has an answer to those questions. It's called "Tap to Alexa," and just as it sounds, it lets owners of the Echo Show touchscreen smart speaker tap on the screen to access customizable shortcuts to common Alexa tricks, including weather, news headlines, timers and more. Users can rearrange those shortcuts as they see fit, or swap them out for other shortcuts based on how they'd like to put Alexa to use. There's also a new keyboard icon -- tap on it, and you'll be able to type out a specific Alexa command with no need to talk at all.

Even better: Amazon tells me that you'll be able to add shortcut buttons that can trigger Alexa Routines, too. Arguably one of Alexa's best features, Routines are custom Alexa commands that can trigger multiple actions at once. For instance, saying "Alexa, lock down," could lock your smart locks, close your smart blinds and turn on your home's smart lights all at once. With Tap to Alexa, you'll now be able to trigger those same Routines by tapping a button on the Show's screen. That's a nice accessibility upgrade for the speech impaired, and something that the wider Alexa user base might want to make use of, too.

You can turn Tap to Alexa on in the Accessibility section of the Echo Show's settings.

Amazon

To turn Tap to Alexa on, just navigate to the updated "Accessibility" section of the Echo Show settings menu and toggle it on. While there, you can also enable transcripts for any incoming voice messages, as well as on-screen captions for everything Alexa says.

One other note: Starting today, that Alexa captioning feature, which has been available in the US for a few months, will make its debut in the UK, Germany, Japan, India, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well.

For now, Tap to Alexa is exclusive to the Echo Show, but an Amazon spokesperson tells me that the company is working to bring it to the smaller-sized Echo Spot, too. There's no timetable for that, though, and no word yet on whether or not the feature will also come to always-on Fire tablets docked in Show Mode.

I also wonder if we'll see those Alexa shortcut buttons on our smart phones at some point. For instance, it'd be nice to have the option of adding them to the Alexa widget on Android phones that already lets you tap to talk from the home screen. There isn't an Alexa widget for iOS devices yet, but adding one with shortcut buttons included would essentially match Apple HomeKit's control center shortcuts, which let you trigger favorite devices and scenes with a swipe and a tap from the homescreen.

For now, Amazon admits that Tap to Alexa's appeal is limited to a small subset of the Echo Show user base, and some might scoff that it essentially turns the Show into an over-sized, over-priced Fire tablet. But as an added layer of accessibility and common sense convenience that makes good use of the Show's most distinctive feature -- its screen -- Tap to Alexa seems like a welcome addition for those who might put it to use.